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Talented and Tainted, Manny Ramirez Is One of the Hall of Fame's Most Challenging Cases

Manny Ramirez is one of the greatest righthanded hitters of all-time, but multiple failed steroid tests create a serious challenge for voters.

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2017 election, it has been updated to reflect it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

A savant in the batter's box, Manny Ramirez could be an idiot just about everywhere else—sometimes amusingly, sometimes much less so. The Dominican-born slugger, who grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, stands as one of the greatest hitters of all time, a power-hitting righthanded slugger who spent the better part of his 19 seasons (1993–2011) terrorizing pitchers. A 12-time All-Star, Ramirez bashed 555 home runs and helped the Indians and the Red Sox reach two World Series apiece, adding a record 29 postseason homers along the way. He was the World Series MVP for Boston in 2004, when the club won its first championship in 86 years.

For all of his prowess with the bat, Ramirez's lapses—"Manny Being Manny"—both on and off the field are legendary. There was the time in 1997 that he "stole" first base, returning to the bag after a successful steal of second because he thought Jim Thome had fouled off a pitch ... the time in 2004 that he inexplicably cut off centerfielder Johnny Damon's relay throw from about 30 feet away, leading to an inside-the-park home run ... the time in '05 that he disappeared mid-inning to relieve himself inside Fenway Park's Green Monster ... the time in '08 that he high-fived a fan in mid-play between catching a fly ball and doubling a runner off first ... and so much more.

Beneath those often comic lapses was an intense work ethic that was apparent as far back as his high school and allowed Ramirez's talent to flourish. But there was also a darker side, one that, particularly after he left the Indians, went beyond the litany of his late reports to spring training, questionable absences due to injury (particularly for the All-Star Game) and near-annual trade requests. Most notably, there was his shoving match with 64-year-old Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick in 2008, which prefigured Ramirez's trade to the Dodgers that summer, and a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence/battery in '11 after his wife told an emergency operator that her husband had slapped her face, causing her to hit her head against the headboard of the bed. (That domestic violence charge was later dropped after his wife refused to testify.) Interspersed with those two incidents were a pair of suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use, the second of which ran him out of the majors.

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For all of the handwringing about PED-tinged candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot over the past decade, Ramirez is the first star with actual suspensions on his record to gain eligibility since Rafael Palmeiro in 2011. Like Palmeiro, he has numbers that would otherwise make his enshrinement a lock. In his ballot debut last year, he benefited from an electorate in the midst of softening its hardline stance against PED users, receiving 23.8%—a higher share than Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, players who were never suspended. He won’t get into Cooperstown anytime soon, but he isn’t going away either, and it should surprise no one if his share of the vote climbs gradually.


Career WAR

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Ramirez was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1972, and moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood—home of one of the city's highest homicide rates at the time—at age 13. His mother worked as a seamstress in a dress factory, and his father drove a livery cab and repaired electronics. At 14, playing for his traveling Youth Service team, he already stood out. "Manny was easy to coach because he probably had the best focus of any hitter we ever had," said his Youth Service coach, Mel Zitter, in a 2004 interview. "He always had a plan. And if the pitcher got him out, he'd tell me why: 'I was looking for a fastball in, but he threw me a curveball and I popped it up.'"

Ramirez didn't just star in baseball at George Washington High School, where the entire varsity was Dominican-born; he built a legend there. At 4:30 a.m. every morning, he would run up the steepest hill in the neighborhood, dragging a spare tire tied to a rope around his waist. One tale has him hitting a home run to leftfield with a one-handed swing. He played centerfield and third base, hit .650 with 14 homers in 22 games as a senior and learned to hit to the opposite field because the school's rightfield fence was only about 280 feet away.

Ramirez didn't graduate from George Washington, but at 19, he was old enough for the 1991 draft. The Indians chose him with the 13th pick and signed him for a $250,00 bonus. Scout Joe DeLuca delivered him to the team's Rookie league affiliate in Burlington, N.C., with one rule: "Don’t let anyone talk to you about changing your swing." Ramirez hit .326/.426/.679 with 19 homers in 59 games that season, good enough to vault him onto Baseball America's top prospects list at No. 37 the following spring. He lost two months at Class A to a right wrist contusion in 1992 but recovered to bash 31 homers and hit a combined .333/.417/.613 split between Double A and Triple A in '93. Though he went just 9-for-55 in a September call-up, he enjoyed a remarkable homecoming in his second big league game on Sept. 3, going 3-for-4 with a pair of homers against the Yankees in the Bronx, not far from where he had grown up.

The Indians finished above .500 just once between 1982 and '93, but with a cadre of young stars—Thome, 23; second baseman Carlos Baerga, 25; outfielders Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, both 27; and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., 28—the Tribe were a burgeoning powerhouse. At 22, Ramirez began the 1994 season as the Indians' rightfielder and hit a two-run double off the Mariners' Randy Johnson on Opening Day. He finished with a .269/.357/.521 showing and 17 homers, helping him to a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting behind obscurity-bound Bob Hamelin of Kansas City.

Cleveland went 66–47 in the strike-torn season, but in 1995, the club stormed to a 100–44 record and its first pennant since '54. Ramirez broke out to earn All-Star honors, batting .308/.402/.558 with 31 homers, 107 RBIs and a 147 OPS+ (sixth in the league). After starting the postseason in a 1-for-16 funk, he went 4-for-4 with a pair of homers in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Mariners. Unfortunately, his World Series performance against the Braves was most notable for being picked off first base in the eighth inning of Game 2 as the tying run with Thome at bat. Ramirez finished the Series 4-for-18 with a homer as Atlanta won in six games.

During the 1995 season, the legend of Manny had begun to grow. Indians manager Mike Hargrove's response to learning that Ramirez had left a paycheck in a pair of boots during a road trip—"That's just Manny being Manny"—was reported by Newsday's Jon Heyman and soon gained traction. According to ESPN's Mike Hume, the phrase was used more than 1,600 times in print over the next 14 years, generally to describe Ramirez's mystifying and occasionally off-putting behavior, from holding himself out of the lineup to stiffing people to whom he had promised tickets to sticking his high school coach with a $7,000 bill for new uniforms that he had agreed to pay for.

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In December 1995, Ramirez signed a four-year, $10.1 million extension, joining Alomar, Lofton, Thome and shortstop Omar Vizquel among those whose arbitration years general manager John Hart had bought out, thereby enabling the team to save millions while keeping its nucleus together. Hart's pioneering strategy helped Cleveland to six first-place finishes in the AL Central over a seven-year span (1995–2002).

In 1996, Ramirez replicated his offensive numbers of the previous year, with slightly better (but still subpar) defense pushing him from 2.9 to 4.2 WAR. Despite going 6-for-16 with homers off David Wells and Mike Mussina, he couldn't propel the Indians past the Orioles in the Division Series. Though Cleveland slipped from 99 wins in 1996 to 86 in '97, Ramirez continued to rake: .328/.415/.538 for a 144 OPS+ with 26 homers and 4.6 WAR. After a quiet Division Series against the Yankees, he hit .286/.444/.619 against Baltimore in the ALCS, with both of his home runs coming in one-run victories. He homered twice more in the World Series against the Marlins but collected just two other hits in the Indians' seven-game loss.

Ramirez took things to a new level in 1998, bashing 45 homers, driving in 145 runs and slugging .599—all good for fourth in the league—during a season in which he began a streak of 11 straight All-Star selections. He had another monster season in '99: .333/.442/.663, with his slugging percentage, 165 RBIs and 174 OPS+ all leading the league; his on-base percentage ranked second, his 7.3 WAR (a career high) was third and his batting average was fifth. Ramirez finished tied for third in the AL MVP voting.

That performance made picking up Ramirez's $4.25 million club option for 2000 a no-brainer. But while he hit 38 homers and set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.351/.457/.697) and another with a 186 OPS+, a strained left hamstring that sat him for six weeks cost the team a playoff spot; the Indians went 19–20 in his absence and finished with 90 wins, one fewer than the wild card-winning Mariners and five fewer than the division champion White Sox.

When Ramirez hit free agency, agent Jeff Moorad gave ESPN's Outside the Lines unprecedented access to negotiations as he met with executives from Boston, Cleveland and Seattle, none of whom were told they were being taped until just before the meetings. With Alex Rodriguez having recently signed his landmark 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers, Moorad sought 10 years and $200 million for his client. He didn't quite get that, but he still landed Ramirez the second-largest contract in baseball history, an eight-year, $160 million deal from the Red Sox with a pair of $20 million club options tacked on at the end.

Over the next 7 1/2 seasons, Ramirez would put up nearly identical numbers in Boston (.312/.411/.588, 155 OPS+) as he did in Cleveland (.313/.407/.592, 152 OPS+), but almost always amid the heightened drama that came with residence in baseball’s fishbowl. Before he could take the field on Opening Day 2001, the first of numerous controversies ensued, as he reneged on an agreement to switch from rightfield to leftfield, a position he hadn't played before. A hamstring strain that confined him to DH duty for the first two months of the season tabled the matter, and when he was finally able to play the field in early June, he did so in left. Although hopes were high regarding his joining Nomar Garciaparra to form one of the game's foremost 1–2 punches, the slugging shortstop was limited to 21 games by a wrist tendon injury in 2001; Ramirez, though he hit 41 homers, drove in 125 runs and slugged .609, couldn't do it all alone in a lineup that had just two other above-average regulars. The Sox went 82–79, firing manager Jimy Williams late in the season; already, rumors of Ramirez's unhappiness in Boston surfaced.


​Under a new regime—owner John Henry, club president Larry Lucchino and manager Grady Little (Theo Epstein would be promoted to GM the next year)—the Red Sox rebounded to go 93–69 in 2002. Ramirez hit .349/.450/.647, leading the league in both batting average and on-base percentage and ranking second in both slugging percentage and OPS+ (184) and sixth in WAR (6.0), but he missed six weeks in May and June after fracturing his left index finger on a head-first slide. In a minor league rehab appearance, he lost a diamond-encrusted earring while making another head-first slide, because of course he did.

In 2003, flanked by Garciaparra and scrapheap pickup David Ortiz, Ramirez led the AL in OBP (.427) and intentional walks (28) and clouted 37 homers. Although he played in 154 games, his absences—a left hamstring injury that kept him out of the All-Star Game; an illness that kept him out of the lineup one day against the Yankees but didn't stop him from socializing with New York infielder Enrique Wilson. Nonetheless, Boston won 95 games and the AL wild card, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1999. Facing the A's in the Division Series, Ramirez shook off a 3-for-18 slump with a go-ahead three-run homer off Barry Zito in the do-or-die Game 5. The Red Sox advanced, and his four-hit effort—including a homer off Mussina—helped them get a leg up on the Yankees in the ALCS opener, but New York ultimately outlasted Boston in the seven-game series, won by Aaron Boone's walk-off homer.

Though Ramirez had hit for a 167 OPS+ (tied for fourth in MLB) and produced 16.6 WAR in his three seasons in Boston, the Red Sox were already willing to consider life without him. At the end of October, they put him on irrevocable waivers, meaning that another team could claim him, be responsible for the five years and $104 million remaining on his contract and not have to surrender talent in return. The Sox couldn't give the 31-year-old slugger away: The Yankees, one of the few teams that could have absorbed such a salary, instead signed Gary Sheffield, and the Angels did the same with Vladimir Guerrero. When Boston attempted to acquire Rodriguez from the Rangers in December, they offered Ramirez in a package that also included a pitching prospect named Jon Lester. That deal fell through over issues in restructuring Rodriguez's contract, and eventually it was the Yankees who traded for A-Rod.

Undaunted by his team's attempts to get rid of him and heeding the advice of teammates Ortiz and Kevin Millar to be more accommodating with the media—which he often spurned for long stretches—Ramirez returned to Boston in 2004 and continued to mash: He hit .308/.397/.613, leading the AL with 43 homers as the Sox, self-proclaimed "Idiots," won 98 games and another wild card. In the postseason, Ramirez drove in eight runs during the team's three-game Division Series sweep of the Angels, and while he wasn’t central to Boston's unprecedented comeback from a 3–0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, his 7-for-17, 1.088 OPS performance in the World Series sweep of the Cardinals earned him MVP honors as the Sox won their first championship since 1918. With at least one hit in every postseason game, Ramirez produced a record-tying 17-game hitting streak that dated back to the 2003 ALCS.

Despite the championship, the Red Sox again explored trading Ramirez over the winter, this time to the Mets, but Boston's unwillingness to kick in enough off the $77 million remaining on his contract scuttled the deal. Money would remain an issue when the Sox and Mets revisited trade talks the following July and again after Ramirez asked for a trade following the 2005 season, in what Lucchino said was his fourth request since Henry had bought the team. Being Manny, he was typically productive in both 2005 (45 homers, 153 OPS+, 4.4 WAR) and '06 (35 homers, a league-high .439 OBP, 165 OPS+, 4.5 WAR), but the Red Sox were ousted in the first round by the White Sox in the former year and missed the playoffs in the latter. Patellar tendonitis limited Ramirez to just six starts after Aug. 26, 2006, which drew allegations of malingering and, again, a request for a trade.

Ramirez missed most of September 2007 due to an injury as well, this time an oblique strain at the end of his least productive season since his rookie year (20 homers, 126 OPS+, 1.1 WAR). Still, he hit well upon returning, clubbing a pair of homers in both the Division Series against the Angels and the ALCS against the Indians. His first homer of the postseason was a walk-off–three-run shot off Francisco Rodriguez in ALDS Game 2:

His third homer of the postseason, in ALCS Game 2, was the 23rd postseason homer of his career, surpassing Bernie Williams for the all-time record. Ramirez went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs in the World Series opener against the Rockies, and while he wasn't much of a factor the rest of the way, the Sox swept their way to their second championship in four seasons.

On May 31, 2008, Ramirez hit the 500th home run of his career, off the Orioles' Chad Bradford, but that was a rare highlight of what proved to be his final go-around in a Red Sox uniform. In June, he got into an altercation with teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout at the start of the month, and at the end of the month, he shoved McCormick. After removing himself from the lineup against Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain in July, claiming knee pain, the Sox sent him for MRIs on both knees when he "forgot" which one ailed him.

Both sides had reached their limit. The Red Sox stepped up efforts to shop the unhappy slugger, who in turn, blasted them to ESPN Deportes:

The Red Sox don't deserve a player like me. During my years here, I've seen how they have mistreated other great players when they didn't want them to try to turn the fans against them.

The Red Sox did the same with guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, and now they do the same with me. Their goal is to paint me as the bad guy. I love Boston fans, but the Red Sox don't deserve me. I'm not talking about money. Mental peace has no price, and I don't have peace here.

The next day, on July 31, the Red Sox sent Ramirez and $7 million to cover his remaining salary to the Dodgers in a three-way, six-player deal that brought them Pirates slugger Jason Bay. To get Ramirez to waive his 10-and-5 rights, Los Angeles agreed to decline his 2009 option, and Ramirez agreed to decline arbitration, making him a free agent at season's end.

Donning uniform No. 99, Ramirez joined the Dodgers, who were just 54–54 but a game out of first place in the NL West. He went 13-for-23 with four homers in his first six games and never really cooled off, putting up astonishing numbers (.396/.489/.743, 17 homers, 221 OPS+, 3.5 WAR) that endeared himself to stony-faced new manager Joe Torre even as he flouted orders to get a haircut. Dreadlocked wigs under Dodgers caps became the rage in Chavez Ravine, and L.A. won the division with an 84–78 record. Ramirez went 13-for-28 with four homers in a Division Series sweep against the Cubs and a six-game NLCS loss to the Phillies. After the season, he finished fourth in the MVP voting despite having played just 53 games in the National League.

A free agent at 37, Ramirez was reportedly seeking a four-year deal worth about $25 million per year, but no team wanted to commit to that kind of headache. In March, he agreed to a two-year, $45 million deal with the Dodgers that included an opt-out after the first year. He even picked up where he left off, batting .348/.492/.641 through the first week of May, but just over a week after the team launched a special "Mannywood" section in leftfield, Ramirez drew a 50-game suspension for taking a banned medication, the female fertility drug human chorionic gonadotropin, which is typically used by steroid users to restore testosterone production. Less than a month after his return, The New York Times reported that both Ramirez and Ortiz were among the players who had failed the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, which carried no penalty but had triggered the implementation of a testing and penalty regimen.

Amid the controversy, Ramirez helped the Dodgers win the NL West and sweep the Cardinals in the Division Series before falling to the Phillies in the NLCS. With the recent black marks against his name, he opted not to test the free-agent market again. While he put together a strong half-season for the Dodgers in 2010, he made three trips to the DL for a variety of injuries, and from June 29 to Aug. 29, he played in just seven games. Mannywood was dismantled, and on Aug. 30, the White Sox claimed him off waivers.

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Ramirez never got it going in Chicago, homering just once in 88 plate appearances. The following January, he signed a one-year deal to DH for the Rays but played in just five games before MLB announced that he had again tested positive for a banned substance. Facing a 100-game suspension, he opted to retire. Ramirez made comeback attempts with the Triple A affiliates of the A's (2012), Rangers ('13) and Cubs ('14) and even played 49 games for the EDA Rhinos in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan in '13, but he never returned to the majors.

Ramirez finished with offensive numbers that are of Cooperstown caliber. His total of 555 homers ranks 15th in baseball history, his 1,831 RBIs are 18th and his 4,826 total bases are 29th. Among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances, his 154 OPS+ is tied with Frank Robinson for 20th all-time; his .585 slugging percentage is seventh and his .411 on-base percentage is 20th. Among righties with at least 9,000 PA since World War II, only Frank Thomas (156), Willie Mays (156) and Hank Aaron (155) outdid him in OPS+; Ramirez's slugging percentage is tops among that group, and his on-base percentage is second. Between his All-Star selections, league leads—once each in homers, RBIs and OPS+ and three times apiece in on-base percentage and slugging percentage—and other accomplishments, his Hall of Fame Monitor Score of 226 is 35th all-time, well above the threshold of a likely inductee.

From an advanced statistical perspective, Ramirez's 651 batting runs—the offensive component of WAR—ranks 18th all-time, but his ineptitude on the base paths (-22 runs), avoiding double plays (-27 runs) and in the field (-129 runs, using both Total Zone up through 2002 and Defensive Runs Saved thereafter) chips away at that value; the last of those is the sixth-worst total of all time. That said, it's worth noting that defensive metrics have generally had a tough time with Boston leftfielders due to the Green Monster; other systems, such as Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (-68 runs) and Michael Humphreys' Defensive Regression Analysis (-42 runs) both paint rosier pictures of Ramirez's glove work than the TZ/DRS combo. On the other hand, he's even worse via UZR (-108 runs) in the 2003–11 period also covered by DRS (-90).

Even while taking the larger hit from Baseball-Reference's choice of defensive metrics, Ramirez's 69.2 career WAR ranks seventh all-time among leftfielders, trailing only Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and four of the 20 Hall of Famers; he's about four wins above the standard there. His 39.9 peak WAR is 12th, 1.6 wins below the standard, and his 54.6 JAWS ranks 10th, 1.3 points above the standard and ahead of 13 of the 20 enshrined.

On performance alone, that's a Hall of Famer, but his drug transgressions make voting for him anything but automatic. I don’t have a ballot until the 2021 cycle, but as someone who draws a distinction between allegations stemming from the "Wild West" era before testing and penalties were in place and those that resulted in actual suspensions, I wouldn't vote for Ramirez at this juncture, whereas I would vote for Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Not everybody agrees with that position. What's interesting from an electorate that has used pre-testing era allegations to shun both Mark McGwire (who debuted at 23.5% and maxed out at 23.7%) and Sammy Sosa (who peaked at 12.5% in his 2013 debut and has been below 9.0% ever since)—neither of whom ever tested positive or were suspended—is that Ramirez received a higher share than both last year. In light of Joe Morgan’s letter, it doesn’t appear as though he’s picking up ground, but neither is he losing it, at least according to the @NotMrTibbs Ballot Tracker. Through 51 ballots, Ramirez has received 33.3% thus far, with a net gain of zero among returning voters (two added, two dropped) and votes from two out of three first-timers.

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When I published last year’s piece, Ramirez was at 33% through 84 ballots but his final public vote share was just 24.5%, compared to 21.9% on private ballots. In other words, there was relatively little difference between his public/private split (-2.6%) compared to Bonds (-21.9%) and Clemens (-20%), All but one of this year’s pro-Manny ballots also included Bonds; that outlier did include Sosa and Clemens, so it’s difficult to say what the logic is there. 

Among last year’s pro-Manny voters, many if not most who published their ballots did so without explanation. Of those who did explain, some declared themselves out of the business of policing, others cited the sheer entertainment value provided by Ramirez, the recent election of former commissioner Bud Selig, whose stewardship amid the influx of PEDs helped exacerbate the situation, and the fear that he would fall off the ballot before his merits could truly be weighed.

Given the crowded ballot, I don’t think Ramirez will make much headway this year, but with Bonds and Clemens trending towards eventual election, albeit slowly, I hardly think the door is closed. More than McGwire, Sosa or Palmeiro, he sticks out as a player whose combination of performance and transgressions are testing the will of the voters to stick to a hardline stance. I’d be lying if I said I knew how that stance would age, or if I weren’t tempted to hold my nose and vote for him as well someday.